Security Zone: Oracle follows Sun in search of hardware

Within a sector dominated by well-established titans, hardware is one of Sun's traditional core business areas, with servers and workstations based on its...

Within a sector dominated by well-established titans, hardware is one of Sun's traditional core business areas, with servers and workstations based on its own SPARC processors (although latterly its hardware includes Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron processors as development of the SPARC processors is scaled back), writes Kevin Eagles. Sun also produces vast computer components and storage systems.

Conversely, Oracle has traditionally focused on software, developing and producing enterprise business software products, in particular database management systems.

So what effect will Oracle's acquisition of Sun have on hardware security?

Let's start with firewalls. For some years, Sun has offered SunScreen, a firewall running under Solaris. But as any committed security professional will tell you, hardware firewalls tend to offer greater security. Oracle/Sun may feel they want to compete against Microsoft's Intelligent Application Gateway (IAG) firewall solution by offering a hardware firewall solution themselves.

Next, Sun's hardware Crypto Accelerator products (boards inserted into a server motherboard) could be expanded. This technology accelerates SSL cryptographic functions enabling network security for Sun platforms (Solaris or Linux). This offloads SSL functions for applications, including IPSec, from host processors, improving performance and maximising the use of resources.

Finally, the virtual machine (VM) world may gain focus with virtualisation being a cost-effective technology solution. VMs tend to communicate over a hardware backplane these days, therefore standard network security controls miss the VM traffic and fail to monitor or block traffic if required. New controls are required to marry the hardware and software in the VM world and Oracle/Sun may focus on this too.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is clearly interested in diversifying his portfolio and renewing interest in the SPARC microchip, according to an interview last May. "Once we own Sun, we're going to increase the investment in SPARC. We think designing our own chips is very, very important. Even Apple is designing its own chips these days," he said.

Optimistic words. However, SPARC chips will need significant investment to catch up with their competition. The sudden cancellation of the Rock model of the SPARC at a late stage of development illustrates how much work is still required.

Potentially, the new corporation will be able to provide organisations with one vast integrated system of hardware and software or separate modularised components of hardware and software, possibly harnessing secure virtualisation, for example. Customer choices could be truly diverse.

Options may include Oracle/Sun Servers or server farms with their own SAN or NAS implementations and their own end points, either traditional workstations or portable/mobile devices. It would be surprising if Oracle/Sun did not investigate complementary hardware opportunities in both the portable and mobile markets, especially when you consider that Oracle now owns Java, and JavaCard is the preferred platform for SIM cards in mobile phones.

All this hardware would utilise a newly refreshed SPARC chipset with green and mean credentials, capitalising on the need to reduce power consumption while increasing utilisation. This could see the Oracle/Sun combo wooing data centre and cloud markets (even if Ellison used to be a tad sceptical about cloud computing).

Instead of going for the full end-to-end solution, organisations may cherry-pick modularised components of hardware (or software offerings) for a blended solution without the full vendor lock-in.

Kevin Eagles, CISSP, is a principal CLAS consultant, Security & Resilience Practice, VEGA Consulting Services

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